Sanjay Sharma: Saina is the best hope at Rio

"India should have four to five players in the top 50. By now they should have been sniping at the heels of Saina and Sindhu. That’s the area both Gopi and BAI have to focus from now on."

Sanjay Sharma coaching nine-year-old Kihan Gala at the Badminton Hall in Khar Gymkhana, Mumbai.   -  Vijay Bate

Sanjay Sharma, former India Thomas Cup captain, media personality and badminton buff, says Saina Nehwal is India’s best medal hope at the Rio Olympics. In this interview Sharma evaluates each player and pairs’ chances at the Games.

Excerpts

Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, K. Srikanth (singles) and Manu Attri / Sumeeth Reddy (men’s doubles) and G. Jwala / Ashwini Ponnappa (women's doubles) have made the Rio cut. What does this mean to Indian badminton?

This is great news for Indian badminton. This only goes to show that whatever P. Gopichand has been trying to do, he has been very successful, especially the way he has been coaching the Indian squad. I would not have thought four years ago, when Jwala and Ashwini qualified for the London Olympics, that they would be able to qualify for their second Olympics. Now even Manu and Sumeeth have also made it.

I am disheartened that P. Kashyap could not make the cut because of injury and surgery. He would have qualified had he been fit. Kashyap would have made it two singles each in men and women. I think the upswing is on for Indian badminton; it’s not deteriorating.



The Chinese have virtually dominated the Olympics (Beijing 2008 and London 2012) and competition is also emerging from Japan and Thailand, mostly in the women’s section. Do you see any medal prospects among the Indians?

Well, I would say that it would be difficult for the doubles pairs to win a medal. They are good enough to have qualified, but not good enough to win a medal. But the very fact that they have made a position for themselves is good for the future of the game in India. As of now there is no bench strength in doubles though.

Both Saina and Sindhu getting two entries for India have raised hopes in the women’s singles. Definitely these two women have been doing extremely well in the international circuit. Hats off to Saina. I don’t think she can be compared with any other Indian player of any other game. I would like to say that to be among top 2 or top 5 players for many years is not an easy task.

Also there is a red herring here because until the London Olympics or two years after, there were only two or three players along with her like China’s Wang Yihan and Carolina Marin. Suddenly you have Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon claiming the No. 1 position, the Chinese Taipei girl Tai Tzu-ying, South Korea’s Sung Ji-hyun, Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, all competing for the Olympic medal. So Saina has her work cut out. Unlike the Super Series, Grand Prix Gold and Grand Prix events, in the Olympics only two entries from a country are allowed.



Saina has played 15 matches this year and won 11, losing twice each to Tzu-ying and Wang Yihan and once to Li Xuerui. Saina’s ranking has dropped to No. 8 now. Should ranking not be an issue when the Olympics are just three months away?

Saina has proved herself many times. Ranking should not be an issue at all. The players she has lost to, she has also beaten them. She may have a lop-sided (4-11) record against Wang Yihan, but I don’t think Saina will go in with any sort of nervousness. Her game revolves around her fitness. She has the best chance of winning a medal and I won’t even put the gold beyond her. She had the Achilles tendon injury before the Dubai Masters. I was surprised when she played in the Premier Badminton League (PBL)... the association may have forced her.



There are six events (2 Super Series, GP Gold and Grand Prix each) before the Olympics. How do you think Saina will navigate these?

She has enough experience and exposure. She should take a bit of rest, concentrate more on her game and fitness. She should not be playing tournaments which involve travelling. The ranking is only as good or bad as two good or bad matches. She has to only cut down her tournaments before the Olympics and focus on playing her game in the right speed and strength.



After the shift from Hyderabad (Gopichand’s Academy) to Bengaluru (Vimal Kumar at the PPBA), do you see any change in her game now?

Gopi did a fantastic job with her. But that’s the choice she has made. Perhaps she could have gone abroad for some training for six months. The new system could have been more beneficial for her.



P.V. Sindhu ... is she capable or ready for the Olympic medal?

Sindhu is a real enigma. She is young and has a lot of badminton left in her. She has the right coach, the only problem is that everything is not coming together for her in a sustained manner. It will come though, it’s a question of time. She will probably peak at the age of 24 or 25 when the 2020 Olympics come in. Look at her record, she has beaten almost everyone in the world, but she has not landed a big tournament title. She has the game; I think she has to be more determined and focused. If I were in Gopi’s place I would not have allowed her to play many tournaments before the Olympics.



Are Jwala and Ashwini capable of doing something memorable? And what about Manu and Sumeeth in the men’s doubles?

Well, they have qualified ... they are justified to be there. Jwala is the best doubles player India has seen in her sport. She has won a lot of medals. She’s a real fighter on the court and hungry for success. So winning a medal at Rio will be a delight for her and India. As a pair, if they (Jwala and Ashwini) are fit, they can do wonders. Their performances in recent times have not really shown as to how fit they are.

It’s a good going for Manu and Sumeeth, but they are not really the future of Indian badminton ... the age is not with them. There has to be a priority in making doubles pairs now. India has never really pushed for the doubles events. Now is the time. Russia doesn’t have history of badminton at all, forget doubles ... but Vladimir Ivanov and Ivan Sozonov just powered their way and won the All England title. What a fantastic story that was.



South Korean legend and coach Park Joo Bong has said Indians are not good in skills..

He has been the best doubles player I have ever seen. He has worked wonders with the Japanese National team. When he says something, one has to give him a lot of attention. Gopi has his task cut out on this aspect. Saina is not getting any younger. So he must pay more attention to the younger lot. India should have four to five players in the top 50. By now they should have been sniping at the heels of Saina and Sindhu. That’s the area both Gopi and BAI have to focus from now on.



K. Srikanth has been making the right noises these days..

He is someone like Sindhu. You cannot write him off. He won the China Open last year and has beaten the top players some time or the other. He’s fit and he has the game. He’s in capable hands ... for him also, it’s time to relax and peak at the right time and focus only on the Rio Olympics. Just play one or two events before the Summer Games for match practice sharpness. They should all be fit and strong for Rio ... that should be their ultimate aim.

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